St. Augustine’s Church, Penarth, 10 May 2016
Latvian Radio Choir
Conductor: Sigvards Klava
Pēteris Vasks: Māte saule; Mūsu māšu vārdi; The Fruit Of Silence; Zīles ziņa
Ēriks Ešenvalds: A Drop In The Ocean
Arvo Pärt: Virgencita; Nunc Dimittis
Anders Hillborg: Muo:aa:yiy:oum
The annual Vale of Glamorgan Festival was always an important event, even before 1992, the year it dedicated itself henceforward to the work of living composers. In a commercial world ever suspicious of the term ‘contemporary’, that was a brave decision, though some thought it reckless. It proved to be vindicated by the loyalty of the festival’s core audience. Artistic director John Metcalf always believed they would stick with any changes, and that the festival’s appeal should be to the ‘general, interested listener and not to the career specialist.’ Of course, living composers include those in the vanguard and as yet appealing to relatively few beyond Metcalf’s ‘specialists’, whoever they are – as well as to those outside the avant-garde’s embattled procedures, and whose music, ipso facto, converges more easily with broader popular taste. The adjective ‘accessible’ might suggest itself for the latter if it had not become pejorative.
So one was justified in asking which of the two aforementioned categories included composers such as Tavener, Pärt, Sculthorpe, Górecki, Fitkin and others, particularly from the Baltic region, who have had good cause to thank Metcalf for revealing their range and depth against the opinion of some who would claim that they inhabit the cool perimeter of the furnace where the most significant compositions are being forged. Then again, perhaps the festival sees its featured composers as the important ones and that the forge represents sound and fury signifying … who knows what? New music is nothing if not debatable; in a post-modern era, its arrival, as much as anything else in the arts, is stellate rather than linear. For the moment it’s all out there, dotted around, and it’s the individual brightness that counts.
There was light aplenty at the opening concert of this year’s festival. Sometimes it was the illumination associated with religious belief, as in Arvo Pärt’s mesmerising Virgencita, a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe, her picture in Mexico City being the world’s most visited Marian shrine. The 18-member mixed choir plotted the work’s evolving sense of wonder superbly to reach one of the evening’s shattering climaxes. His austere Nunc Dimittis is more measured, its harmonies closer but replete with glowing sonorities that catch fire appropriately at ‘lumen ad revelationem gentium’ (a light to lighten the Gentiles).
For the Latvian Pēteris Vasks, an old friend of the festival and a featured composer this year (the others are Metcalf himself and Steve Reich), light is more typically what awaits at the end of the tunnel, his Zīles ziņa (‘The Tomtit’s Message’) a piece saying something about history and destiny, its sonic brew a seemingly ad hoc mixture of chatter, laughter, part-speech and other heady articulations. Its title referenced the natural world, which to Vasks symbolises an idealism at odds with his country’s political turmoil and subjugation. The concert opened with his Māte saule (‘Mother Sun’), a hymn to the universe’s great luminary based on a text by Janis Peters. Even here the thoughts conjured by the words are more important than how the words might dictate the musical structure ( a simple motif) and setting, whose ‘white note’ diatonics employ chant and palpitating vocal effects.
Mūsu māšu vārdi (‘Our Mothers’ Names’) is a setting of a poem by Māris Čaklais, using bird names as pet names for women. At twelve minutes it was longer than his other works heard on the night and bolder, almost strident, in its pursuit of his obsession with enduring nature and despoiling humanity. By this time, the inner workings of the choir had transfixed its audience, from the bodies of sound moving with and over one another to the practical issues of singers discreetly establishing pitches with their personal tuning forks as intervals were squeezed. In The Fruit Of Silence, a setting of words by Mother Teresa, Vasks cools and slows to Pärt’s meditative mood and pace for a processional, almost ritualistic, example of part-writing that ebbs and flows rapturously. Vasks was in the audience, bathed in the light of due celebrity and recognition. He and Metcalf are both seventy this year.
If the Baltic states from which the foregoing music arose have emerged free from Soviet hegemony, the wider Baltic region, represented on this occasion by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, has had it easy. Maybe that’s why Hillborg’s Muo:aa:yiy:oum (also given as Mouyayoum) is a wordless sound kaleidoscope buzzing with energy pure and simple – well, not so simple – and beyond any predicating political background. Hillborg’s intention was to bathe himself in sonic possibility. The results are hypnotic and a delight for the listener, especially when the accumulating layers of sound release overtones like some unintended but elusive revelation. The work’s despatch, as much as its conception, was a miracle of rhythmic control and dynamic variable, and involved almost everything the oral aperture can do in the way of making a noise. The work had modest echoes in A Drop In The Ocean by the Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds to liturgical texts and more words from Mother Teresa, in that the voices are asked to express the non-verbal as well as intone the text, and there’s a fair amount of turmoil and sustained exhilaration before the words of the iconic missionary settle on the proceedings as a blessing.
One way into the music performed at this concert and others like it is to consider its duration. The vistas opened up by these far-from-superficial works seemed to invite seemingly endless possibilities and justify a longer visit, certainly the overtly religious sort. Light, after all, is defined by its ability to illuminate and one doesn’t want it to go out. But perhaps it would be impossible and undesirable for these composers and this extraordinary choir to arrange a compact with the audience that made the radiance eventually blinding. This was compact, transcendent music surpassingly delivered. Hence the brevity, hence the concentrated pleasure of listening to it.
Header image of Latvian Radio Choir www.neurecords.com